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Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, who was abducted in Georgia last May, was sentenced to 6 years in prison by an Azerbaijani court on 12 January. He was convicted of smuggling €10,000 ($11,200) in cash, border trespass, and disobeying border guards.
Mukhtarli’s wife Leyla Mustafaeva condemned the ruling on Facebook soon after it was announced, laying the blame at both Georgian and Azerbaijani authorities.
‘#AfganMukhtarli was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment. I appreciate this decision as a joint decision of #Azerbaijani and Georgian authorities. Since #GeorgianDream government lead by prime minister #Kvirikashvili is complicit in Afgan's arrest and imprisonment. It was organized crime in Georgia and continued in Azerbaijan. He was abducted in Georgia 8 months ago’, Mustafaeva wrote.
How was Mukhtarli abducted?
Mukhtarli was last seen in Georgia by his friend on the evening of 29 May 2017. After failing to return home, he resurfaced again in Azerbaijan charged with what his lawyer calls ‘bogus charges’. His lawyer Elchin Sadigov told reporters that Mukhtarli had been kidnapped outside his flat on Tbilisi’s Chonkadze Street by four Georgian speaking men.
According to his lawyers, ‘three of Mukhtarli’s four kidnappers wore police uniforms, and one was dressed in civilian clothing’. His lawyers say that his kidnappers called their superiors every 20 minutes to report in.
Mukhtarli was beaten and taken to the Azerbaijani-Georgian border, where he was detained by Azerbaijani police. Baku’s Sabail District Court imposed three months of pretrial detention on Mukhtarli on 31 May.
How did Georgia authorities react
After being accused of involvement in his abduction, Georgian authorities denied that they assisted or were in any way involved. In June, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili called on President Giorgi Margvelashvili to immediately grant citizenship to Mukhtarli’s wife and daughter.
Mustafayeva rejected the offer soon after, claiming she does not want to give up her Azerbaijani citizenship. Mustafayeva added that she had applied for a Georgian residence permit a year ago, but was rejected for ‘posing a danger to state security’.
Georgia’s Interior Minister has suspended the head of the Border Police and chief of Counterintelligence in its investigation into Mukhtarli’s abduction from Tbilisi.
He confirmed that it is possible to cross the Georgian-Azerbaijani border somewhere other than an official crossing point, but that it happens rarely. He repeated that this was Azerbaijan’s official explanation for how Mukhtarli crossed without any official documents, as his passport remained in Tbilisi.
After several International rights groups condemned Mukhtarli’s abduction, the US State Department released a statement saying they were disturbed by the ‘reported abduction and subsequent arrest of Mukhtarli’ and arrest of Deputy Chairperson of the opposition Popular Front Party, Gozal Bayramli. Bayramli was detained on 26 May while crossing the Georgian–Azerbaijani border, allegedly for smuggling €12,000 ($13,400) in cash.
The US said they were closely following the Georgian investigation into the abduction, and have urged that it be full, transparent, and timely. The statement also urged Azerbaijan’s government to release all those ‘incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms’.
The European Parliament passed a resolution on 15 June which ‘strongly condemns the abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli in Tbilisi and his subsequent arbitrary detention in Baku’ and ‘considers this a serious violation of human rights and condemns this grave act of breach of law’.
The resolution also urged the Georgian authorities to ensure a ‘prompt, thorough, transparent and effective investigation into Afgan Mukhtarli’s forced disappearance’ and to bring the perpetrators to justice, while challenging them to ‘clarify beyond any doubt all suspicion regarding the involvement of Georgian state agents in the forced disappearance’.